In my previous two posts I explained how technology has changed rural communities by bringing postmodern ideas and people into rural areas. These postmodern ideas are a challenge for the rural church. Those churches have typically enjoyed significant support from their community. Though postmodern people are interested in spirituality, they often do not think of the local church as the exclusive source of such spirituality. Rural churches often struggle to reach people who think differently than what they are used to. But rural churches can reach postmodern people by capitalizing on four reliable practices, each of which I will deal with in separate blog posts. The first of those practices is helping the church regain their place as the social center of the community.
The smaller the community the more likely that the rural church was once the social center of the community, which is a good historical reputation for a rural church. When I first moved to Vermont in 1993 I served as pastor of the Washington Baptist Church. It was a small rural church that was located in the middle of a village of 500 people. Though the church had dwindled down to less than 20 and had become less active, there had been a time when it was the social center of the community. Though that time had passed nearly three decades before I arrived, I discovered that many people in the community still thought of the church as the place that should be the social center of the community.
Our rural church began to host a variety of concerts, outdoor bar-b-ques and sports activities that helped the church regain their position as the place where exciting social events happened. The community responded positively to those efforts because in the collective consciousness of the community, the church had a long history of doing such events even though the church had not done them recently.
Rural churches should look for a variety of new ways to enhance the concept of the church as the social center of the community. This is going to require more than just having church services on Sunday. New people who move to an area are normally looking for connections with the community. Therefore these new people are prime candidates for the church to reach, even if they have a different worldview than the church. Regretfully, the church often never connects with those new people because they do not know how. Churches often make announcements in their church bulletin, but since new comers are not present to read those announcements, they are not very effective in encouraging new comers to take advantage of the social activities of the church.
The easiest way to connect with these new people is with the use of technology. Just as technology brought postmodern ideas and people to rural communities, churches can use that same technology to draw people to their social functions. Postmodern people who move into an area are typically more technological than the average American. This means they socialize and communicate more via electronic media than in person. To reach these people, rural churches must discover how to use Facebook, MySpace, text messaging, Web sites and other technological opportunities for promoting their social events. These types of technological gateways are often the "front door" that postmodern people come through. Having a church Web site is a must. Starting a Facebook page for your youth group or some other ministry is important. A church might consider collecting everyone's cell phone number so it can send out text message announcements about church events. There is not a single "easy" answer to connecting with new comers, but using technology to promote the church's social functions is a place to start.
A rural church that already has a wide variety of ongoing activities may continue to do many of the same activities and programs that they have always done, but they must learn to promote those programs and activities through the technological methods that postmodern people are accustomed. Churches must learn how to connect socially through technology if they want to attract all those new people in town to church. The historical memory of the church as the social center of the community gives the rural church an advantage, but in order to capitalize on that advantage, rural churches are going to have to discover how to use technology to attract and engage newcomers.
Will creating a website or Facebook page alone be the answer to connecting with postmodern people? Of course not, it is but one step in an ongoing effort to reach out. In my next three blog posts I will discuss three additional ways that churches can reach out to postmodern people who now live in rural communities.